Poor Poets: Roque Dalton and Roberto Bolaño [Updated]

In The Origins of Postmodernity, Perry Anderson suggests that modernism and postmodernism “…both were born in a distant periphery rather than at the centre of the cultural system of the time: they come not from Europe or the United States, but from Hispanic America…” After this initial mapping, Anderson goes on to discuss Fredric Jameson’s explorations of art and literature in the second half of the 20th century. One area Anderson points to as not being sufficiently theorized by Jameson is cultural production at the margins of North American and European influence: “The scope of Jameson’s work exceeds this occidental boundary. But it can be asked whether, in doing so, it nevertheless still projects an unduly homogeneous cultural universe at large, modeled on the North American system at its core.” (This critique of Jameson is brilliantly laid out by Aijaz Ahmad in his book, In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures, Verso, 1994.) As part of an effort to move beyond the limits of that “North American system,” literary discourse on the postmodern might consider the techniques employed in the posthumous novels of the poets Roque Dalton (El Salvador, 1935-1975) and Roberto Bolaño (Chile, 1953-2003).

Dalton’s only completed novel, Pobrecito poeta que era yo… [Poor Little Poet That I Was], first published in Costa Rica in 1976, remains largely unknown. A key text of the late Boom era, it tries to develop a path beyond the political dichotomies of the 1960s and 70s, even while Dalton himself remained deeply committed to revolutionary action. Bolaño’s gigantic and incomplete 2666, published in Spain in 2004, is being hailed by many readers and fellow writers, such as the Colombian novelist Santiago Gamboa who in his column for the magazine Cambio described it as “…[A] trench from where all of us who believe in this can (and should) keep fighting.” Taking up themes from his other long novel Los detectives salvajes (which Farrar, Straus and Giroux is releasing here in the U.S. as The Savage Detectives next month), Bolaño’s 2666 mirrors the structure and some of the topics of Dalton’s bohemian epic Pobrecito poeta que era yo..., employing poetry as a central conceit for the text. Considering Bolaño’s use of autobiographical motifs in his fiction, the correspondence between these novels might partly originate in their brief encounter in San Salvador in late 1973 (or early 1974), when Dalton was living in clandestine safe-houses and Bolaño was returning to Mexico after having escaped jail and near-death during the infamous coup against Salvador Allende.*

Dalton remains a contradictory figure today. A political outlaw and groundbreaking intellectual in his own country throughout his short life, he is now arguably El Salvador’s most important 20th century writer. His political militancy and his poetry are usually read simultaneously. Yet, his final and most ambitious book is a massive semi-autobiographical novel organized into 5 separate books (with an addendum of newspaper clippings), all of which reject clear-cut political stances.

Dalton was killed by his fellow guerrillas in El Salvador, who accused him of being a CIA operative, as well as a bourgeois intellectual too concerned with theorizing revolution instead of enacting it. The final book of Pobrecito poeta que era yo... is based on his own escape from prison in El Salvador in 1964. Some of the novel’s most eerie, testimonial-like pages occur when a famous young poet is arrested in San Salvador and eventually interrogated by a CIA agent, who offers him opportunities and comfort if he agrees to abandon his militancy and instead focus on literature divorced from political engagement. The poet refuses this offer and manages to miraculously avoid death by escaping into the hills outside his prison, partly thanks to an earthquake. These events, narrated in the final book of the novel, are closely based on incidents in Dalton’s own tumultuous life, events that along with his brilliant poems and essays made him a legendary figure among Latin American and European intellectuals of his generation. The protagonist of the book, like Dalton, eventually flees San Salvador for Havana, from where he narrates his story.

Considering this is a novel by one of the most well-known poets in Latin America, there seems to be an uncomfortable (or is it merely ignorant?) silence surrounding the book. It's almost as if some readers or editors might consider Dalton’s sprawling bohemian epic, which opens raucously in a bar at midday, an incomprehensible departure from the explicit political tenor of his previous work. While UCA Editores in San Salvador has kept the book in print, it remains difficult to find outside of El Salvador, which could be another reason for its obscurity. Just as Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s Tres tristes tigres (1968) evoked the multiple literary and musical underworlds of Havana in the late 1950s, Dalton's book gives us a vivid portrait of San Salvador’s literary avant-garde during that same decade. Dalton employs an urban Salvadoran Spanish that vividly reflects the aesthetic, political and libidinal concerns of a radical generation of young writers.

Pobrecito poeta que era yo... was written in two stretches over a decade, in San Salvador during the early 1960s and Havana in the early 1970s. The book’s composition was interrupted by Dalton’s arrest for revolutionary political activities in 1964. By the time he returned to El Salvador from Cuba for the last time in 1973 he had finished the novel, expanding it into a complex collage of voices, narratives and aesthetics spread out across two decades. The novel can be read within the same experimental context of work by figures such as Cabrera Infante, Cortázar and Lezama Lima. It was during this final interlude in San Salvador, when he had more or less abandoned aesthetic concerns for political ones, that Dalton met the young Bolaño. Because of their age difference, this encounter between the two poets could perhaps be seen as a type of mentorship. Meeting Dalton months before his murder had a profound effect on Bolaño, as he revealed in a 1998 interview with the Spanish magazine Lateral:

“[…] There you have the case of that Salvadoran poet who was murdered by his own comrades. I met several of the people who killed Roque Dalton. I lived in El Salvador before the Civil War began, and out of the ten main comandantes four where writers. And I met two of them. One who was called Cienfuegos and another one whose name I can’t remember. And I met many writers and…

Charming people, I’m sure…
Sure, man, charming. Some not so much. Besides, I traveled the entire Pacific coast of Latin America on my way down to Chile in 1973, and these guys were my age: twenty, twenty-two, twenty-three…Or a bit older. The one who introduced me to these people was Manuel Sorto, who was the official cinematographer for the guerrillas, the one who made the movies, risking his life, which were shown all over the world. He was a very ethical person. But, for example, Cienfuegos, who was one of the men who gave the order to kill Roque Dalton, I even ask myself whether there wasn’t even a little bit of literary animosity there.

Why? Was he a bad poet?

No, Cienfuegos wasn’t a bad poet, but compared to Roque Dalton he had nothing. I think they killed Dalton, basically, in the manner of children enacting the ritual of killing the father.

But instead of it being literary, that time the murder was literal.
Yes, yes, literal. Besides, they killed him while he slept. They didn’t wake him up; he never knew they were going to kill him. They debated all day long, because Roque Dalton was opposed to an armed uprising and the comandantes said that the time was now and that they had to start the revolution. They didn’t reach an agreement; Roque Dalton went to sleep, the comandantes kept debating and said: “We have to kill him.” As though they were a band of gangsters. And they said, “Let’s kill him now that he’s sleeping, because he’s a poet, so he won’t suffer.” That’s literally what they said. […]”

Dalton and Bolaño both write about the struggle to become an artist, in some ways like Joyce did, chronicling what an individual might go through mentally and materially in order to devote himself to writing. At one point in the fourth book of Pobrecito poeta que era yo..., we find the following entry in a young writer’s journal, outlining his hopes for a novel that would invoke a shaman’s poetic methods:

“My novel should be irritating and cathartic. Searching that intense fever, provoked by the scream of the shaman who will extract the ills from the body through sweat and urine, and those of the soul through desperation.”

This effort to create a cathartic narrative is evident in Bolaño’s masterpiece, 2666. Its fourth book, “La parte de los crímenes,” moves beyond the fictional world of a reclusive German writer named Beno von Archimboldi, turning its gaze on the brutal murders that have afflicted the northern Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez for over a decade now. The relentless, flat newspaper-prose of this section of the novel forces us to lie in abandoned desert ravines and city dumpsters with an interminable list of mutilated female victims. The city of Santa Teresa (a fictional version of Ciudad Juárez) in 2666 takes on the role of a sinister vortex of evil, one of unknown roots and global reach. The unending series of murders becomes an allegory for Latin America’s current age of violence.

In the last book of 2666, we are introduced to the life of the mythical writer Archimboldi, beginning in rural Germany in the 1930s and concluding as he prepares to fly to Mexico, where his nephew has been jailed as a suspect in the serial murders of Santa Teresa. One of the most compelling episodes of 2666 takes place on the Soviet front during WWII, when the young Archimboldi deserts his army regiment and takes refuge in a semi-abandoned town in the Russian countryside. He discovers the journal of an avant-garde Moscow poet, which has been stashed in a hiding place behind the chimney of the cottage where he stays. The journal is written by a Jewish poet, born in 1909, who recounts his gradual alienation from the Soviet Revolution, during the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. The poet, named Borís Abramovich Ansky, recounts his effort to balance an imposed revolutionary consciousness with his own aesthetic vision, an endeavor doomed to failure as the revolution begins to demand ideological purity from its artists. Bolaño’s mordant critique of 20th century Latin American intellectuals, on the ideological left and right, seeps into the events of Ansky’s life at times. This is how Bolaño comments on an anecdote Archimboldi reads in the journal which describes how Ansky falls in love with a beautiful girl in Moscow:

“And Nadja Yurenieva saw Ansky and discreetely got up and left the assembly hall where the bad Soviet poet (as unconscious and ignorant and affected and timorous and fussy as a Mexican lyric poet, actually just like a Latin American lyric poet, those pathetic phenomenons, skimpy and vain) dispersed his rhymes about the production of iron (using the same arrogant ignorance with which Latin American poets speak of their I, of their age, of their otherness), and she went out into the streets of Moscow, followed by Ansky, who wouldn’t get close to her but instead remained at a distance, some five meters behind her, a distance that shrank as time passed and the walk prolonged itself.”

Both of Bolaño’s long novels develop a critique of the failure of Latin America’s intellectuals, those who theorize globalization as well as those who proclaim a revolutionary faith, who always fail to grasp certain nightmarish realities surrounding them, both approaches often helping to exacerbate economic, social and political degeneration. Bolaño explicitly avoids revolutionary allegiances, always remaining a critic, a Baudelarian observer whose only faith is to be found in the poem, in the act of creating the book itself.

The tension between revolutionary vanguards and poetic avant-gardes is central to Dalton’s work, from his earliest poems in the 1950s to the autobiographical episodes and anarchic bohemia of Pobrecito poeta que era yo…. In the fourth book of his novel, a young writer addresses a dichotomy he finds between art and politics:

“I believe the Revolution should have a politics for dealing with me, for dealing with people who, like me, don’t do anything other than reflect, with the most acute evidence (I can’t say whether this is due to talent or irresponsibility), on the complications of the world today whose transformation will be achieved by the revolutionaries. Amen.”

In his own life. Dalton maintained a faith in utopian politics (even if in a critical manner), while his novel and much of his poetry explore the contradictions of the artist’s place within revolutionary thought. Bolaño’s two major novels often seem to dismantle the revolutionary impulse, exposing it as merely another 20th century fiction. His brutal fourth book recounting the murders in Ciudad Juárez fulfills the apocalyptic tone of the Charles Baudelaire epigraph that opens 2666:

“An oasis of horror amidst
A desert of tedium.”

These are preliminary notes on two poets who demand a much deeper analysis. But I would like to suggest that 2666 cannot be understood without returning to that brief encounter between Dalton and Bolaño in San Salvador, during the tumultuous mid-1970s. Like his revolutionary mentor and fellow nomad, Bolaño chose to transform his poetry through the use of a relatively bourgeois form, the novel. Both poets understood that the novel can be deconstructed and expanded for multiple purposes, including the liberating effect of experimentation and ideological anarchism. 2666 and Pobrecito poeta que era yo… acknowledge the material futility of the poet’s existence in Latin America, a futility that might perhaps be undermined through the collective act implied by the form of the novel.

Yet another conduit between these two writers, one that requires its own essay, is their predilection for the “antipoetry” of Nicanor Parra (1914). Bolaño was vocal in his admiration for Parra, and Dalton likewise admired the Chilean poet’s irreverent approach to his art. For both of them, Parra's skeptical, humorous poetry served as a model for how literature might be enacted as camouflage against tedium. Much like Baudelaire did in the 19th century, Parra’s Poemas y antipoemas (1954) offered a radical critique of the way poetry was being conceived by most of his peers. Parra proposed a rhetorical break from the transcendent and the baroque by means of an ironic simplicity, a stance one finds throughout Dalton and Bolaño’s expansive postmodern novels. Poetry, as Parra understands it, could use the demotic to return the poet to a practical yet subversive use of daily language. Thus allowing literature to be built from the absurdities that individuals face when trying to maintain a distinct path. The collective is adhered to at intervals, but always filtered through the poet’s dissenting standpoint:

“I am the Individual.
But no. I grew bored with the things I was doing,
The fire bothered me,
I wanted to see more,
I am the Individual.
I went down to a valley irrigated by a river.
I found what I needed there,
I came across a savage town,
A tribe,
I am the Individual.
I saw they did a few things there,
They engraved figures on the rocks,
They made fire, they made fire too!
I am the Individual.
They asked me where I was coming from.
I answered that yes, that I had no set plans,
I answered that no, that from then on.
Then I grabbed a piece of rock I found in a river
And began to work with it,
I began to polish it,
I made part of my own life out of it.”
(“Soliloquio del Individuo”)

Anderson’s notion that the roots of the postmodern are to be found in Latin America is vividly enacted by the late novels of these two iconoclastic poets. Their work pulses with a sense of simultaneously belonging to (and being alienated from) canonical Western and marginal “Third World” cultures. They explicitly reject the notion that their subject matter and style be limited to national or biographical experiences, choosing instead to create radical portraits of the global ages they each inhabited. Bolaño never wrote extensively about his experiences in El Salvador, but it seems evident that Dalton’s death would have affected him personally and aesthetically. That singular and horrific event may have served him as a warning that poetry is an impulse that cannot be girded by any political ideology. Dalton’s murder would have reminded him of the challenge poetry represents against those who would impose a single method or morality. This is why they are both so relevant to our polarized situation today, because they propose a type of poetic novel whose form inherently challenges dogmatism. Finally, one hopes the forthcoming translations of Roberto Bolaño’s two major novels might lead to an eventual English version of Roque Dalton's undeservedly obscure masterpiece.

Anderson, Perry, The Origins of Postmodernity, London, Verso, 1998.
Bolaño, Roberto, 2666, Barcelona, Anagrama, 2004.
Bolaño, Roberto, “Entrevista,” Lateral: Revista de Cultura, No. 40, April 1998.
Dalton, Roque, Pobrecito poeta que era yo..., San Salvador: UCA Editores, 2005.
Parra, Nicanor, Poemas y antipoemas, Madrid: Ediciones Cátedra, 1995.

[All translations from the Spanish here are my own.]

*Author’s Note (2/18/2015)
I wrote this essay after noticing a fragment in a 2005 feature about Bolaño in The New York Times by Larry Rohter, “A Writer Whose Posthumous Novel Crowns an Illustrious Career.” I was intrigued by Rohter’s suggestion that Bolaño had met Dalton in San Salvador in the mid-1970s: “After an interlude in El Salvador, spent in the company of the poet Roque Dalton and the guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, he returned to Mexico living as a bohemian poet and literary enfant terrible [...].” However, as Miguel Huezo Mixco eventually proved in his 2011 essay “Roberto Bolaño en El Salvador. Supremo jardín de la guerra florida,” Dalton and Bolaño never met in El Salvador.

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